Revolutionizing the Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Torah scrollby Dr. Isa Aron
Rabbi Bradley Solmsen

A “far out” bar mitzvah video that went viral reminds us of the extravagance and poor taste of some celebrations. But what if the problem is more fundamental? Could how we prepare children and their families for b’nai mitzvah be the root cause? If it is, what can we do to revolutionize b’nai mitzvah preparation?

Several posts on this site have addressed this question. Each has focused on one aspect of the problem, and each has proposed a particular “solution.”

In contrast, we believe that there is no silver bullet; rather, each synagogue must find its own methods.

The B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, begun just a year ago and already working with 90 congregations, helps synagogues find what’s missing, articulate an alternate vision, and experiment with ways to reinvigorate the b’nai mitzvah experience. Synagogues in the project have already introduced some of the following innovations, and are laying the groundwork for others:

  • Family retreats: These include explorations of the meaning of prayers; engaging Torah study; and personal discussions of what this life cycle moment entails. Most important, it could plant the seeds of a true community, moving participants’ b’nai mitzvah from private events to communal celebrations.
  • Continuous mentoring over a period of months or years: Thirteen year-olds need Jewish role models in addition to their parents, perhaps members of the clergy, congregants or students in the Confirmation class. The mentors help them write their d’var torah, discuss the “big questions,” or just hang out. The important thing is that these relationships be comfortable, honest, and long-lasting.
  • Social justice projects that span years: Rather than the perfunctory checklist of mitzvot, Temple Beth Elohim of Wellesley, MA organizes 4-8 hours a month of volunteer work for sixth and seventh graders at sites like a Head Start program, a food pantry, or a senior citizen’s center. At Stephen Wise Temple, in Los Angeles, volunteer opportunities will begin in the 5th grade, and culminate in a service-learning trip in the 10th grade. Both congregations incorporate text study and reflection into the volunteer work. Har Hashem, in Boulder, poised to begin a similar program, found parents eager to carve out a role for themselves.
  • The option of learning more about Jewish prayer and adding interpretations and variations: Congregants at Temple Sholom, Scotch Plains, NJ want parents and children to take ownership of the service, offering a class, followed by opportunities to customize the service, within the following parameters: the child should experience the challenge of leading and teaching the congregation; the challenge should fit with the child’s interests, strengths and individuality; b’nai mitzvah students and their peers should find the ceremony and the process engaging; and the whole family should participate, with encouragement and easy access for different levels of comfort with Jewish practice.
  • An opportunity to explore the Torah portion in greater depth and interpret it in creative ways. A novel approach at Woodlands Community Temple in White Plains, NY, is an eight-session Torah study circle, with children in the inner circle, surrounded by their parents. Parents, notes Rabbi Dreskin, “are amazed by how knowledgeable and wise their 12 year-olds are.”
  • Explorations of what this rite of passage signifies, and what the Jewish tradition has to offer both parents and children: At IKAR in Los Angeles, parents with expertise in adolescent psychology are working with the clergy to lead discussion groups for parents on their changing and challenging family dynamics.

These experiments vary in range, but share a number of common themes: the creation of community, the participation of parents, learning that is challenging and deep, and the opportunity for children to make a difference in the world.

Will these efforts diminish the excesses of some celebrations? Maybe, maybe not. But they will accomplish something more important. As Rabbi Joel Abraham, of Temple Shalom, Scotch Plains, NJ explains:

Last spring, at a rehearsal for a Saturday service, I saw a student’s face break out in a huge grin as he held the Torah for the first time. Each of our b’nai mitzvah should have that experience. The ritual with which they mark becoming a bar or bat mitzvah should be as enjoyable and as meaningful as the party that follows. If we can get close to that goal, then we will be doing our part to carry a meaningful Judaism on to the next generation.

Dr. Isa Aron is Professor of Jewish Education at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Rabbi Bradley Solmsen is Director of Youth Engagement, Union for Reform Judaism. They are Co-directors of the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, a joint project of HUC and the URJ.

You can read more about the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution on our website  or in “The New York Times“.